How to Start an Etsy Side Business without a Great Idea

How to Start an Etsy Side Business without a Great Idea

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There are a lot of great tutorials out there for how to start your own Etsy shop. I want to do something a little different by giving you a real world example to follow.

I started my Etsy shop, Green Valley Upcycling, in November 2020. Our first product was soy candles poured in upcycled wine and liquor bottles – cool for sure! But as we soon discovered, not the most unique.

Still, we made about $2,000 in our first two months of business, and at the time of this writing in early January 2021, we have now expanded into brick and mortar wholesale, online wholesale, and our own website. Instead of just one dude banging out candles and vases in the basement, “we” are now a team of three: a salesman, an administrator, and a master craftsman.

In this article I’ll tell you exactly how we got started. Use it as a starting point as you figure out what works best for you. 

The idea – building your first prototype

Today we sell all sorts of beautiful and functional goods handcrafted from upcycled materials. But we didn’t begin that way.

I really don’t believe that every successful business starts with a great idea. It starts with an idea that’s good enough, and which can grow over time into a truly great idea. In our case, that was a $1 vase cut from an old wine bottle.

Our adventure started when my brother John asked my dad for a new basketball hoop several years ago. Dad didn’t have the money, so Mom suggested the two of them start selling flowers at the end of the driveway, harvested from my dad’s backyard patch.

Turns out, customers loved their huge, $5 bouquets. John got his hoop at the end of the summer season, and next year, the flower business doubled. My dad didn’t want to pay for vases to put these bouquets in anymore, so he started cutting his own vases from recycled wine bottles and selling them for just a buck each. They flew off the flower stand. People started dropping off their own bottles so my dad could cut them into vases.

We really had no business selling some of these vases. They were rough and far from perfect, but it didn’t matter. They were fun and unique (and I mean, at a dollar each… you couldn’t beat the price).. People loved them. They were good enough for the first prototype.

Refining the idea through competitive research

A few years later, I came home from college for a summer and helped my dad refine the cutting process for the vases so it would be faster; the vases would look more professional; and we could sell them for more money. It took some time but we got it. We launched the new vases at $5 each, quintupling the price.

We did this by watching how other people had done it – through competitive research.

Turns out other people we found online were already making our unique idea. Eventually, we even found somebody who had taken the same idea we had and created a company that spanned three continents. There is nothing new under the sun.

Thank God for that! The fact that other people are already making your idea successfully is a blessing for several reasons – it means you don’t have to reinvent the wheel; it proves that your idea is good; and it helps you figure out how to sell it.

By learning from other people, we soon not only discovered how to make a better wine bottle vase, faster, but that we could make all sorts of similar things, including candles, lamps and planters, and not just from wine bottles, either but also beer and liquor bottles.

We also discovered that with a little more investment in professional tools, we could sell our vases for $20 each online on Etsy, along with our growing list of other product ideas.

Turning an interesting idea into a great one through iteration

So at the end of the season, I took the money I made from the flower stand and invested it into professional glass-working equipment, then started pumping out hundreds of wine, liquor and beer bottle vases. 

We turned some of those into soy candles for fun, almost as a goof, and showed them to some family and friends. People went nuts. We had discovered our flagship product almost by accident. 

Within a month, I had an Etsy shop up and running and selling soy candles for thirty bucks each. Green Valley Upcycling was born. 

Soy candles became our flagship product for a number of reasons, but I tell the story of the vases because I think it’s instructive. A lot of gurus on the internet give you the impression that building a successful business is a flash of inspiration for the big idea, then a grind for weeks, months, or years until the world suddenly realizes how great the idea is and you hit the big time.

That’s simply not true. Great ideas, and great businesses, start from humble beginnings and grow.

If you’re reading this article, I’m assuming you’ve got an idea. If you take anything from this part of the story, let it be this:

Start with what you have

Don’t wait until your idea is perfect. It will never be perfect until you take it from your head and put it out into the world, in front of other people.

The rest of this article is about how to make the leap from the idea behind every Etsy side business, to real sales.

Involving other people before you launch

The secret of a successful product launch is the preparation beforehand. My Etsy store was so successful so quickly after launch because I, and my family, had essentially spent years involving other people in our little flower side hustle, the progenitor of the online shop.

Family and friends loved coming to our little farm in New Jersey to help plant (and of course pick) flowers. They loved the idea of the roadside flower stand and the wine bottle vases, and seeing photos of the project as it grew over the years. Many of them had been saving us wine bottles for some time so we could cut them into vases. For these people, the farm was a place of beauty and rest and community, and watching the flower business grow was exciting. They were happy to be a part of it.

I didn’t realize it at the time (nobody did – we were just trying to share all this fun with people, not make money), but this is an extremely powerful form of marketing: adventure marketing.

All we did was involve people in the unfolding adventure of our flower stand. When it came time to become a formal business and launch our flagship products on Etsy, we had a substantial following of people already invested in our story and excited to see where it went — so excited and invested, in fact, that they bought a whole bunch of candles, and told many of their friends about us.

In a very practical sense, these original partners in our flower stand adventure were our very first buyers and five-star reviewers on Etsy; they gave us the credibility we needed for other people who aren’t familiar with our story to trust us and buy from our fledgling shop.

Having an Etsy side business and creating your own handmade goods for sale is an adventure.

The earlier and more often you involve other people in your process, the more fun you’ll have and the better you’ll do when it’s time to start selling.

Document the adventure of starting an Etsy side business

As you are developing and refining your product, be sure to take lots of well-thought-out photos and even short video clips at every stage of the process, and share them liberally to those who have asked to be in on the adventure.

Not only does this help get people engaged and involved in the story, it’s going to help you build your online shop, your own website if you so choose, and any other marketing material you produce as you grow.

Document, document, document!

Opening for business – setting up the storefront and getting paid 

There’s no need for a whole article on Etsy store set up. This is the easy part of the journey. Etsy’s store guidelines are more than sufficient.

Etsy Seller Guidelines

Name your store. Connect a bank account. Add a description and a few photos to your web store (from the collection you’ve been building, yes?) Post products with the best photos you can take at the moment.

That’s it. Don’t waste any time at all on SEO at the outset. Don’t worry about buying a photobooth or getting your products professionally photographed. Just get your stuff up there and get the word out.

In coming weeks and months, you should revisit your store to tweak product descriptions, improve photos, and start thinking about a cohesive brand.

But for the launch, this sort of perfectionism is actually counter productive. Make a few sales and prove your concept. Then you can divert some of your limited energy into making your storefront perfect.

Cost to start an Etsy side business

You can spend as much or as little as you want to start an Etsy shop, though I always recommend you start with as little cash investment as possible.

The only upfront cost Etsy collects from sellers are listing fees: you’ll pay $0.20 for each product you list on their platform, whether it sells or not.

Once you make a sale, expect to lose 15% of each sale to Etsy. That might sound like a lot (I thought it was at first) but it’s actually pretty generous, considering what you get in return: perhaps the easiest way to start a handmade craft business that has ever existed in the history of the world, along with access to a huge marketplace without ever having to leave your home.

To put it in perspective, brick-and-mortar retail stores usually take 50% of each sale. Meaning if the item sells at retail for $40, you can only sell it to the store at a wholesale price of $20. With Etsy on the other hand, you get to keep $34.00 of that $40.00 sale price. Big difference.

Important to note here: you do not need to be an officially registered business (i.e., an LLC or even a DBA) to sell on Etsy. You don’t need a business bank account.

You also don’t need to worry about sales tax. Etsy now calculates, collects, and remits sales tax within the United States automatically, which is a huge blessing.

Shipping on Etsy – What you need to know

Shipping is one reason Etsy takes relatively little of your sale price: you are responsible for managing this headache.

Actually, once you’ve figured it out, shipping is not a big deal. Here’s what you need to do:

  • Design your package and purchase a small quantity of shipping supplies for your first run of orders
  • Sign up for a commercial shipping provider
  • Refine as you go

Design your package

How you ship your products depends on what it is. You could start from scratch, but I don’t recommend it. See what successful competitors are doing.

When we first started making candles, I had no idea how to ship glass. I did some preliminary research about shipping glass online, then I bought products from three competitors on Etsy who were selling essentially the same thing I was. When my orders arrived, I analyzed their shipping methods and based my own method on theirs, making small adjustments to fit my products.

I ordered the same label printer and the same size boxes from Uline (a small batch, because I figured we would need to adjust shipping methods as we learned and grew, and I didn’t want to get stuck with a bunch of boxes I couldn’t use just to save a few cents with bulk prices).

Unfortunately I didn’t order the same bubble wrap, thinking I could get away with using some scraps I had lying around the house for my first few orders. Several orders broke in transit, and replacing them was a big headache. 

You may not have such a difficult product (I hope not). Whatever you’re shipping, don’t cheap out on package design!

Which commercial shipping service is best for your etsy shop?

You do need to know how you are going to ship items before you list them for sale, or you stand to lose a lot of money on shipping overages or earn yourself upset customers who receive poorly packaged goods.

A commercial shipping service allows you to get a “volume” rate from the USPS that is typically reserved for very large customers. These companies have a deal with the post office that allows them to pass on those volume discounts to us, the little guys. 

You sign up for an account, purchase your postage through their platform, and print the postage right at home. You can even schedule a USPS pickup right from your front door, so you never have to go to the physical post office. 

Being able to offer these discounted rates makes your products more attractive to buyers, and less painful to you if you do happen to miscalculate how much an item will cost to ship.

There are a lot of these services out there. These are some of the biggest providers, all of which I have personally tested:

Shipstation

Shippo

Stamps.com

Pirateship

Etsy also provides its own commercial shipping rates, but they’re not always as low as these third party apps.

Pirateship is an excellent choice for starting an Etsy side business because it’s simple and free. It integrates with Etsy, meaning you never have to manually enter your package info to purchase a label – Pirateship imports your orders for you. They also have a great video, FAQ and article database that helps newbies learn the ropes of shipping.

However, at the time of this writing it doesn’t have as many ecommerce integrations as the bigger companies, and it only works for USPS, not Fedex, UPS, or DHL. If you plan to expand onto eBay, Amazon, or your own website, or if you will be shipping items larger than a tennis racket, you’ll want to look at a different shipping service eventually.

Do you need branding to start an Etsy side business?

Don’t forget to include a small card, or even a handwritten note, in every package. Thank the customer, and make sure your Etsy shop name and URL is on the note. Consider including a coupon with an expiration date.

You’ll also want to include your name and how to buy more products on everything you sell, so that when a customer wants to re-order, or a friend sees them using your product, they don’t have to try to remember who the heck you are; it’s right there. This can be a stamp, a sticker, an engraving – just make sure at the bare minimum your name is on your stuff.

You can and should develop your brand further as you grow. But in my opinion, these two items (your box stuffer and your “product marker”) are the only pieces of branding you need to invest in when you launch your store.

For most side hustles, logos, graphic identities, and fancy websites don’t make money at the launch level. Products and sales make money.

Start your Etsy side business before you’re ready

How do you know when it’s time to launch? There are two general types of product launches: soft and hard.

A hard launch is what most people think of: there’s a targeted marketing campaign leading up to a set date when a completed product will be made available for sale. It’s highly premeditated and exhaustively planned. This is the typical corporate method.

A soft launch is the opposite. You have an idea that’s mostly ready to go, and you’ve mostly figured out how to make it, price it, sell it, and get it into people’s hands, so you put it up for sale while you continue to work on the unfinished parts of the puzzle.

Because we’re regular human beings with real lives and other jobs, not a fortune 500 company, we chose a soft launch. I recommend you do, too.

We put our minimum viable product up for sale and improved as we went. We let all the people who had been following our adventure for so long know through social media, phone calls, texts, emails, and good old fashioned conversation, that the stuff we’d been talking about was finally ready. They went and bought it and told their friends. 

After those initial purchases gave us credibility, people we didn’t know started buying from around the country after they found us on Etsy. You could argue that $2,000 and two months later, we’re still wrapping up our soft launch. We’ve just now got a handle on how to efficiently make; accurately price; effectively ship; and beautifully brand our products.

In fact, “I” became “we” because I didn’t wait until I had everything perfect to start bringing other people onboard, and in fact I’d have never launched this thing if it was just me working on it. Thankfully, one of my best friends signed on as my production partner after I’d proved the concept. My brother became our commercial salesman soon after, and is landing us wholesale gigs as we speak. 

We all have full time jobs (or in my brother’s case, a full-time student workload) and limited time. Perfectionism was not an option, so neither was a hard launch.

I submit that this is true for just about anybody starting their own Etsy side business. Choose a soft launch.

Reflect and plan your next steps

After our initial launch period of a month or so, we discussed what was working well and what wasn’t. We had to change some of our prices and improve some processes; tweak our shipping methods and add new products; and put plans in place to achieve our future goals. 

Our vision for our little venture has expanded far beyond that first $1 vase. Like my brother said recently: We’re just three clowns who started a business. If we can do it, who couldn’t?

So, start your Etsy side business with the idea you have; involve other people in your adventure; learn from people who’ve walked the road before you; launch before you’re ready; learn on your feet, and grow as you learn.

If you have any questions about starting your Etsy side business, please feel free to contact me or my partners. Many other business owners have helped us, and we love giving back! I also highly recommend that you read some of the titles on our list of best books for starting a side business. In the meantime, enjoy your adventure!

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